We the Peoples... and the United Nations 70th General Assembly

This week, the United Nations begins its 70th general assembly, which will lead to a Summit on Sustainable Development at which a new compact to promote economic and social development will be adopted.
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"We The Peoples", so begins the charter of the United Nations, adopted by representatives of 50 nations 70 years ago. The charter outlines four goals: peace, advancement of human rights and the equal rights of men and women, advancement of justice and respect for international obligations, and advancement of social progress and freedom. As means to achieve those goals, the charter focuses on "practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors", international cooperation to maintain peace and security, prevent the use of armed force and the promotion of economic and social development.

This week, the United Nations begins its 70th general assembly, which will lead to a Summit on Sustainable Development at which a new compact to promote economic and social development will be adopted. This compact includes 17 development goals, one of which specifically highlights education, emphasizing the commitment to inclusive and equitable education at all levels. Education is not only one of the seventeen goals, it is also instrumental to the achievement of many of the remaining 16 goals, which include the empowerment of vulnerable people, the elimination of poverty, promoting physical and mental health, sustainable management of natural resources, fostering intercultural understanding, tolerance, mutual respect and an ethic of global citizenship.

In reaffirming its commitment to advancing global education, the new sustainable development agenda builds on the UN charter, and on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included education as one of those rights, precisely as a mean to advance understanding and peace. But the narrative about education discussed this week at the UN is sharper in defining that education should empower and contribute to peace and sustainability, than the two previous education goals (the millennium development goals which focused on access and equity in education), contained in the previous development compact that the new sustainable development agenda will replace. Empowerment, peace and sustainability are themes developed at some length as ends of education in the declaration of the World Education Forum convened by UNESCO in Incheon, South Korea, last May.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, has brought a new focus to the big global challenges humanity faces. It is no surprise that he and his colleagues have recognized education as a key avenue to address these challenges, and that they understand that in order to effectively prepare students to understand these challenges, and to have the desire, knowledge and skills to address them, education will need to include all, and that it will need to be relevant. Ban Ki Moon has repeatedly called for global citizenship education, as a way to align education efforts with the broader goals of development and sustainability.

This new emphasis on global citizenship education will require some rethinking, on the part of member states, of the purposes school systems currently advance. It will require asking hard questions about where, in the curriculum, are the opportunities for students to learn about the global challenges we share with others who inhabit the planet, to understand the ways in which our lives are interdependent with those of fellow humans in all corners of the planet, to appreciate the institutions and mechanisms we have to advance common goals, across national boundaries. Asking those questions may call for some innovation, in curriculum and pedagogy, in how we relate activities in schools to the world students experience outside schools, and in how we support collaborations of students and teachers with fellow students and teachers in other geographies. But the examination resulting from asking these questions about how education is advancing global citizenship should also take us to revisit the roots of the very institution that are deliberating for the seventh decade this week. This examination should also take us to revisit the charter, and the moral clarity of its four goals, to re-read the declaration of human rights, and to review the lessons of seventy years of experience, advancing human rights education, inter-cultural understanding and global education.

Just as the General Assembly meets this week, an art exhibit celebrating the work of American painter Norman Rockwell which has been available at the UN over the summer, concludes. Like many of his generation, Rockwell was excited and hopeful with the creation of the United Nations. So much so that in 1953 he sketched a drawing titled United Nations, featuring three representatives of the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union and, in the background, people from many different cultural backgrounds looking over the shoulders of these representatives. The painting conveys the hopes of "We the peoples" for the deliberations of these representatives, in their work to advance the goals of the charter. But Rockwell never finished this painting... instead, he drew from this painting to complete "the Golden Rule". In the golden rule, he transposed some of the very same figures of the people in the background of the original United Nations, but none of the government representatives are in the completed painting which became one of his famous covers in the Saturday Evening Post. It was this revised representation which inspired a large mosaic which the United States government gifted the United Nations in 1985, which was recently renovated. It is telling that over the years, Rockwell decided to give The People the central place in his painting, deemphasizing governments, and that the theme of representation gave way to the theme of reciprocity and trust among people of very different ethnicities and religious backgrounds. This is an apt message for the deliberations of the Sustainable Development Summit, a reminder that the 17 goals are about empowering "The People", and that the work of achieving those goals must be done with "The People" and by people of many different backgrounds who will need to learn to trust one another so they can collaborate in achieving the seventeen development goals and indeed the very goals of the United Nations. In order to achieve the four goals of the UN charter, it is the people, not just governments, who must "practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors", cooperate to maintain peace and security, use non violent means to solve conflict, and advance economic and social development. And high quality, inclusive and relevant education for all, is the best mean we have available to empower "The People" to do just that.

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